— Danica Patrick’s Sprint Cup career will start at the Daytona 500 on Sunday, right after Grand Marshal Jane Lynch drops the green flag. Unfortunately, Lynch is appearing as herself and not as Sue Sylvester, her onscreen alter Glee-go, the perpetually snarling, bad attitude buried beneath helmet hair and an Adidas track suit.
Patrick probably could use some pre-race face time with Sylvester, the woman whose overquoted, over-Tweeted mission statement is “Never let anything distract you from winning. Ever.”
Ever since Patrick announced that she’d be transitioning to NASCAR’s Nationwide Series full time — with 10 appearances on the Sprint Cup circuit — distractions have stuck to her like sponsor logos on the side panels of her No. 10 Chevrolet.
It’s not that Patrick is the first woman to run a NASCAR race or the first pair of XX-chromosomes to circle Daytona International Speedway. She’s not the only driver moving from IndyCar to stock cars this season and, with a decade of experience under her seatbelt, she’s far from a rookie.
The problem for Danica Patrick is that she’s also DANICA PATRICK, the brand, and her status as a two-legged marketing strategy threatens to overshadow her abilities as a driver. She might as well stitch NASCAR’s expectations onto her racing suit because there will be constant reminders that they want — and need — her to do everything from putting more Coke chugging fans in the bleachers to ensuring that TV ratings continue to increase after a five-year skid.
Patrick lived under an IZOD-branded microscope with IndyCar, although the situation was a little different. Despite its passionate fan base and the opinions of racing purists, the IndyCar Series is a niche league, one that never recovered after its hateful divorce from — and reluctant second marriage to — CART. She never raised its profile much above her own head, either despite or because the spotlight never left her slender shoulders.
Patrick, who won only one IndyCar race, was named IndyCar’s most popular driver for six straight years and become the only race car driver — of either gender, with either chassis — on Forbes list of the most powerful people in entertainment. Meanwhile, without a stint on Dancing with the Stars, most people wouldn’t have recognized three-time Indy 500 champ Helio Castroneves if he was eating leftovers out of their fridge.
That’s why NASCAR wants Patrick. They’ve experienced mainstream, middle American popularity, back when the stands were full and the Daytona 500 was prestigious enough to attract the president as an honorary starter, instead of a character actress or the cast of Transformers 3: The Explodey One.
They want to be back in everyone’s living rooms and on everyone’s mind and they think adding Patrick to their list of recognizable names can make that happen, the headliner to their ongoing outdoor festival.
But they must expect Patrick to do that just by showing up, because no one has mentioned her chances of, you know, actually winning, not at Daytona or on any other Saturday night or Sunday afternoon, not on a Nationwide track and not in her handful of Sprint Cup starts.
“It is not a matter of winning or losing,” Patrick’s Stewart-Haas teammate Ryan Newman said at Daytona’s Media Day. “As long as the outcome is income.”
If that’s true, it’s an insult to Patrick, who had three top-10 finishes in 12 starts during her inaugural Nationwide season last year. Unfortunately, Newman might be right. According to the Associated Press, before her name even appeared in a Sprint Cup starting grid, Patrick already ranked in the top 10 in NASCAR's merchandise sales, has increased Nationwide’s ratings by 9 percent and is one of NASCAR’s five most-recognized drivers (which means she automatically qualifies to have her number peed on by a cartoon Calvin sticker).
But so far, the only person talking about Patrick winning is … Patrick. “Do I think I can win the Daytona 500? Yeah,” she said at Media Day last Thursday.
Stranger things have happened, right, Trevor Bayne? Patrick has run reasonably well in her three Nationwide Races at Daytona. She raced the Drive4COPD 300 in 2010 and 2011 and the Subway Jalapeno 250 last year, leading for 13 laps before finishing 10th. The Drive4COPD outing was her first-ever Nationwide race and, it should be noted, the most watched event in Nationwide history.
She’s in Sunday’s field courtesy of a points arrangement with Tommy Baldwin Racing, which means that Patrick, who finished 29th in Sunday’s qualifying, was guaranteed a place in the 500 by cashing in the points earned by TBR last year (It also means that on the weekends that Patrick isn’t in the No. 10 car, it will be driven by TBR’s David Reutimann; it also means if you save enough tickets from the Aladdin’s Castle skee-ball machine, you probably could race at least once next year).
Patrick is committed to NASCAR at least through the 2013 season, but NASCAR hasn’t said how long they’re committed to her, how long her every move will be smothered and covered like a plate of hash browns at a Daytona-area Waffle House.
There are other recognizable names and other marketable faces, like defending Daytona 500 champ Bayne, who couldn’t scrounge together enough sponsorship dollars to race full-time on the Sprint Cup circuit this season.
That’s the problem with pinning your hopes to one product, and NASCAR has made clear that's what Patrick is. Either she'll be a runaway success, or she'll be the New Coke of NASCAR.
The question is whether they'll want us to watch if Patrick stays buried deeper in the pack than an unfiltered Marlboro. Or if NASCAR will market her if all they’re selling is mediocrity. And if Patrick doesn’t deliver the demographic numbers and Nielsen ratings she’s supposed to, is she a failure, or just a failed experiment?
There’s a lot riding with Patrick, starting at noon Sunday.
And Danica, talk to Sue Sylvester. You still have time.
Jelisa Castrodale has learned a lot about life by making a mess of her own. Read more at jelisacastrodale.com, follow her on twitter at http://twitter.com/#!/gordonshumway, or contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org